"You are never stronger…than when you land on the other side of despair." – Zadie Smith
Introduction: This excerpt is a chapter that was culled from Atomic Aztex(City Lights, 2006). Atomic Aztex as published takes place on two alternate realities—both mid-20th century—one where the Aztec defeated the Spanish, had colonized Europe and in coalition with their allies, Russian anarchists, during World War2 are helping to defeat the Nazis. The novel's action takes place in that alternate world at Stalingrad. The other alternate reality is in Los Angeles in a pork slaughterhouse in East L.A. (The City of Vernon).
Initially, in the draft of the novel that was approximately 100% longer, the "story structure" (so-called) was that of a fractal structure, that is, capable of bifurcating at each chapter into realities spinning farther and farther from the original point of departure, more and more only remotely related to preceding events of the "story." So initially the editor could not make heads nor tails that structure, with every plot line bifurcating into farther and farther removed subplots and spin-offs. I had sympathy with the editor and so within a month or so cut the whole thing down and revised it to two mirroring or parallel realities, the slaughterhouse and Stalingrad (a figurative slaughterhouse). This chapter, "Preobrazhensky is My Name" was cut because it takes place in neither of those two realities. Instead, it's narrated by a dead Soviet character based on an actual science fiction writer, intellectual and Bolshevik cadre executed by Stalin's KGB in "the Great Purge" of 1937, and follows him and another main character of the novel as they pass through the Aztec underworld of the dead.
PREOBRAZHENSKY IS THE NAME
[Yevgeny Preobrazenhsky, 1886 - 1937]
Preobrazenhsky is the name. Evgeny Preobrazhensky. One other thing, it’s not true that I skipped out on Komrade Zenzontli and his strange unit of jaguar troops. You may find this difficult to believe, but actually the Keeper of the House of Darkness is like a brother to me. In some ways Zenzontli is closer to me than my own brothers. It’s not too far off to say the man is secretly my double. Once we realized that the Aztek leader was lost, you can bet that I did everything in my power to find Zenzontli and his squad. I feel in some ways that the man is a part of me, a part of my expansive Russian soul. That’s part of the problem actually. You know the problem of the expansive Russian soul, it is too expansive, outfitted with heavy furrowed edges of fields, hedgerows, windbreaks, sun setting peacefully behind the fading pink clouds low on the horizon, behind the trees, but there’s a chill in the air, a piercing chill emanating from deep in the ground. In the morning the ground will be frozen, puddles will crack under your boots. The black earth is going to sleep. The trees are bare against the sky. Mother Russia is vast, but the fire has gone out, the Mother is asleep, her children are wandering the roads… the villages are burning… two tiny smudges of smoke emerge on the edge of the sky as night falls… in the vast spaces of the Russian night, a man’s soul is knifed by the wind… stars appear, disappear in the dark, float past his fingertips like sparks blown from a campfire, sparks float thru him like lights fading from his eyes as he drowses where he sits, half-frozen… In my waking or my dreams, Zenzontli was there, a fixture, the same man, before he became well-known as Hero of the Red Oktobyr Traktor Faktory, winner of the Buenaventura Durruti Order of the Red Star for service to the glorious Motherland, I knew him in my soul—I firmly believe, somewhat, out of the corner of my eye—as a simple man, basically a nice guy, occasionally afflicted with a ghastly tendency toward flippant violence, might just cut a man’s face off with his pocketknife, shuck it from the bone like a rubber mask to wear it flapping from his belt, he might say, for ‘luck.’ Xipe Totek. At least that’s how the Nahuatl translated to me, I didn’t follow exactly all the ins and outs of their ornate, clabbered, brocaded ideology. (Clearly, it works for them.) I did attempt to persuade Zenzontli that our brand of Russian anarcho-syndicalism was more scientific than any other politicking yet devised. He listened to me with narrowed eyes, I don’t think he was listening close, I think he was translating my halting Nahuatl into blurry pictograms full of rain, palm fronds, the wind-riven surface of the black lake of Texkoko, in his fizzing brain. In some ways this man who was so much like me that his own men called me his twin, his Other, his double, remained in his innermost recesses a Stranger. In the limbic recesses. The fizzing surface of his cranial membrane. There were the superficial differences, I grew my beard out like a Cossack or a village Jew to hide my acne scars, he shaved assiduously even if there was nothing else to shave with than his knife. My eyes are green his are brown. My eyebrows shaggy his are not. I am missing one of my long horselike front teeth his teeth are small, pointy & perfect. I have a long scar on my cheek from a saber cut in the Civil War, he has tattoos, war paint or other markings which metamorphose from time to time into devilish petroglyphs of Night. He wears a lip plug fashioned from mammoth tusk that glistens on his chin like a saliva-sheened yellow fang while I do not. I don’t think he brushes his teeth either judging from his breath that stinks. Fuchi. But there are the similarities. Our hair sticks out in the morning like pine needles. He wears clothing that looks like cellophane shower curtains or burlap potato sacks; I wear thick clothes that make me look bearish in some buffalo robes. We are tough guys who can play chess, spit into the wind, cuss and drink beer at the same time. Me and him both tend to lose money at cards then later cover it up with embarrassed little coughs or stupid grins. We both might appear to be wearing sunglasses if there were any light in this joint at all. But it’s pretty dismal in the intermittent smoke and explosions from German artillery. What else. His mother’s name was Huilotl Ittitia, mine is Yeugenia, see the similarity? He doesn’t cut his dirty fingernails, I don’t either. There’s hundreds of things like that about us that are the same. We both like bikes, girls, we would probably wish to play beach volleyball but such a thing is a complete blank in our cultural heritage, we eat hot dogs cold from the refrigerator, enjoy clean sheets, appreciate the idea of being on a boat better than the reality, the idea behind the Future better than the reality, we like folk music from lost causes, Spanish Civil War, Nikaraguan Revolution, Chilean Revolution, Kalifornian Revolution, Movimiento Xikano, Mozambikan Revolucion, Portuguese Revoluciao, etc. sunny days that make you feel cleaner or younger than you are, the pungency of a woman on our thick fingers, wet roads stretching in front of us, the best of the day ahead, yelling at our men in chaos advancing upon us, we plainly like telling other people what to do more than being told what to do. Both of us hate turkeys who believe in astrology (men more than women), we hate being stabbed with a dirty knife, each of us is not pleased by dentists, cops, automobile fanciers, landlords, sports fans, waking up soaked in cold piss next to a stiff body, sitting in handcuffs on a police station bench next to a stinking wino waiting to be fingerprinted and booked, cities wrapped in four-color separation, Christmas tree lots, canned okra, eggplant parmesan, Robert ‘T. S. Elliot’ Frost, getting called upon to fix somebody’s shitty car like a Fiat on a cold wet day as the water pump bolts strip or break off outright as you turn the wrench (Russian car manufacture being based on Fiat production processes) but you go out to try and do it anyway just cuz you fell for that old line somewhere, some time ago: ‘you can do anything if you set your mind to it.’ You may never question somehow some ways that you think. What for? Fucking Fiats. In short, you can see how much we are exactly alike.
At least I was able to save the guy; the Keeper of the House of Darkness was mighty depressed too, you could tell, when he found out all his men had been snuffed, wiped out, murdered or killed in suspicious circumstances while he was away. We all have to face reality sooner or later. It’s often unpleasant. That’s just the way it is. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. I was mighty preoccupied and worried too: imagine how I felt when I found out the Komrade, Keeper of the House of Darkness, + 1/2 his men had vanished down a fucking hole in the ground. I mean, he wasn’t making things any easier for me, was he? He was supposed to be my man, my komrade, my brother. What did he do but march his men into a giant hole in the ground and when the dust settled we couldn’t find any sign of them, not a track, not a used condom, not a bent pennywhistle, not a hair off their head, not a gleam from their eye, not a persimmon core, not a piece of permanganate, not a patch of pus-stained plaid pantaloons we promised the last prissy Pasha of Persia. Suffering succotash. I called my superiors at HQ and I told them Zenzontli had gone underground in search of new entrance to the Traktor Faktory; I hoped it was true. We attempted to locate their whereabouts by calling down manholes, releasing homing pigeons down the sewers, sending out Rover, faithful attack-trained Hero Dog of the Anarchist Cause (subsequently shot to pieces while lifting his leg on a Nazi swastika on a ruined wall by a snot-faced German youth wearing a steel pot on his head), also by singing ‘Happy Birthday Baby’ in Aztek to myself, analyzing dreams, tea leaves, beard cuttings or telling funny stories to anyone who was about, but we just could not locate those boys anywhere on this earth. Down in the bunker that had been moved twice already after direct hits from German 88s, we triangulated the area with colored pins on a map on the wall and developed a desperate plan. I knew exactly what I had to do. I was right on top of it. I filled in what’s-his-name, Komrade Maxtla on the missing-in-action status of our Aztek brothers, he said he’d expected difficulties of this kind, no need to worry, he’d fill out a report to Aztek Kommand about the Keeper of the House of Darkness getting lost again, have Komrade 3Turkey assume kommand of the other squads and assign them to infiltrate the Traktor Faktory under heavy fire, certain death, possible blood blisters, sty in the eye. It was okay, he said, Aztex is getting used to it. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke, he muttered. I myself don’t know if the operation could have been called a success the way things turned out. The good thing was we located some unopened cans of cherry red paint that might come in handy to repaint captured Volkswagens, but then again we lost all those men, all those young lives, the spirits and bodies shattered, souls scattered to the wind on the gray skies of Stalingrad, like little blackbirds, chips of embers, little flecks in your eye—you blink and they’re gone. That’s sad, I’m thinking.
Zenzontli’s second in kommand, Jaguar Komrade 3Turkey, he was a good guy, walked like a goofy cripple with his bad knee that I understand came from previous service from a serious war wound, Komrade 3Turkey was an august presence in his ratty coat torn across his massive shoulders which you could tell left him vulnerable to the vicious Siberian winds howling over the icy ruins of the city, certainly any one of his own men would have given him the clothes off their back except he owed them all money cuz he was probably the worst gin player that ever lived (poor bastard couldn’t tell whether the cards he held were right-side-up or up-side-down), but he was a great guy, lots of heart, bad breath, he was a giant among men, I could tell someone must’ve loved him like a son or a brother, I myself trusted his judgment implicitly, he happened to do whatever Komrade Maxtla said was the best thing, Komrade Maxtla had already suggested to him that he hump them grunts four klicks up to the Traktor Faktory pronto so as not waste any more time farting around in “the ’ville,” time to become a big hero now and attack the German positions frontally so as to proceed with the following three strategik objectives: first, set up a distraction so that the German forces become confused or disgruntled (“the Jerries will become dismayed, weakened by diarrhea, consequently forgetting all about Komrade Zenzontli and the missing squad”); second, “get those fucking Nazis”; thirdly, “fuck ’em up!” “Yeh! That’s it!” Those were the three Aztek strategems that Komrade Maxtla impressed upon us. Whenever 3Turkey recalled that suggestion I could see him nodding in his mind and in his body, shaggy head bobbing like he was retching but he was actually thotful in his own way. At those times he often had a faraway dreamy look in his eyes like he was far away or partly asleep. Komrade Maxtla would clap him on the shoulder, on the back, lean to his ear, mutter something, smiling, grim. 3Turkey would brighten, lift his broad head like the light had been turned on, surmise the grinning Maxtla, 3Turkey nodding wisely. “Just like that?” 3Turkey might ask, raising an eyebrow in surprise; Maxtla would punch his shoulder, “Fuckin’ A! You got it! You’re a smart motherfucker, know that? Shit! I wish you were on my crew! Zenzontli is damned lucky to have you!” 3Turkey would scrunch up his big battered dark face in a weathered smile, his skin chapped and cracked from the cold. Maxtla—perfectly groomed and rarely available, putting in a rare personal appearance here just for 3Turkey’s benefit—gazed on him affectionately: “Anyway, if you don’t mind, I gotta get back to my men, cuz we are amassing on the northern bridgeheads across the Volga for a pincer maneuver that will encircle the entire German 6th Army here, cut it off from General Hoth’s reinforcements, cut them off from Von Manstein, insure the doom of the Third Reich, you see. Virtually halt Hitler’s advance on the Baku oilfields, turning the whole tide of war for the Allies. It’s an important job, more important than hanging out here getting frostbit with you all, slaughtered in the fucking ruins of the city center, wave after wave of Panzers getting thrown at you, get pinned down in suicidal frontal attacks, being wiped out by German 88s and squads of enemy shock troops. Just forget I mentioned any of that,” Komrade Maxtla ordered. “Okay,” 3Turkey nodded amiably. “You just go out, do your job like you are told, everything will work out perfectly fine,” Maxtla grinned, his white teeth aligned perfectly along his lower lip like Richard Nixon (he almost raised himself up, threw up both arms with ‘V is for Victory’ signs in both hands, but apparently thot the better of it; you couldn’t pull such gestures on the troops too many times before such gestures of leadership went stale on you, best save it for a photo op), “Okay, I gotta go. You call me if you need anything, Komrade Maxtla or his designated field representative will be right there for you. Keeper of the House of Mists, remember that. My Eagle Unit, you know, Jaguars are nice and stuff, but shit, anyhow, like I was saying, got somewhere to go, we’re gonna be up there on the northern perimeter, come down on divisions of Rumanians, Italians, Prussians and Nazi legions like eagles, like furies they never dreamt existed in their worst philosophies, we’ll bust their defensive lines like Saltine crackers and celery sticks jammed into the hardest stalest guakamole ever made out of green avokados, we’ll encircle those Germans doing fifty kilometers a day with all kinds of armored support, tank support, artillery support, air support, convoys of hot food, while you guys will be doing your little struggle here, fighting it out in the cellars or rat holes, grubbing out a paltry existence in the varrios, little homies, dying in piles of frozen bricks and ruined steel girders, crouching behind rusted traktor engines bleeding out onto the frozen concrete or whatever, we’ll be riding high, getting our pictures snapped surrounding columns of thousands of captured Germans, we’ll be hailed as big heroes while you vatos are ground into nothing—heroes ain’t zeros!—a bloody patch of dirty snow in the snows of yesteryear evaporated and long forgotten. Anyway, we’re all in this together, aint we? Gotta go get set to look my best. You go run along, get yourself a voter registration drive, some leftist leaflet to hand out on the corner, some little issue or cause you try to make sound incendiary in your own mind. All right, Big Boy?” Maxtla clapped 3Turkey on the shoulder. Maybe the komrade Keeper of the House of Mists didn’t use those exact words. Maybe he said, “All right, Mamon?” The likelihood is 3Turkey probably didn’t catch it all. “All right,” 3Turkey said. Maxtla gave 3Turkey thumbs up, punching the air with his fist. “You’re one kool dude, ese,” Maxtla, Keeper of the House of Mist, told him (teeth cutting straight across his grin). Maxtla nodded in my direction curtly without looking up, turned on his heel and stalked off.
Strange things were happening inside the Traktor Faktory. A runner (one of our moon-faced Russian nurses bundled in rags like a fat boy) relayed me a message that said, for example, that our radio operators had intercepted a frantic call for help from a squad of German special forces that had been cut off. Their last message was, “The SS squad which perished at these coordinates before us left us one warning. Now we’ve seen it. It’s the monkey.” The final transmission. Apparently they too were wiped out. HQ sent word along noting that they were unable to decode “monkey.” They didn’t know what it meant. They suggested “poison gas.” I suspected myself that it was some Germanic racist code word for our Aztek brothers. But I really had no clue. Apparently the Germans who were being wiped out were seeing something they termed ‘monkeys.’ Extermination of entire squads like this on both sides was not unheard of, of course, given the massive chaos and total devastation raining down upon this area of the front, but the lack of German bodies and obvious clues were mysterious, as was the uncanny ability of our Aztek brothers to overcome fortified German positions with only small arms, flanged war clubs or knives. Sometimes they met massive defeats, as noted previously, but more often they overran German positions almost soundlessly, leaving only jaguar prints and a few tropikal feathers drifting in the dust of pulverized concrete that sifted out of the roofless girdered air. My job was to provide liaison and it wasn’t going well. I had mysterious radio transmissions we were unable to decode. “Monkeys in the ruins… flitting like shadows out of the corner of your eye… What does it mean? Ow!” We’d lost most of Zenzontli’s men on a brave, foolish, frontal assault on the faktory itself where they were blown to pieces after taking some positions inside the faktory by German 88s, followed by two Panzer tanks which rolled directly thru a path cleared especially for them by a an SS special forces squad. The SS mopped up the few remaining wounded, shooting them where they lay, examining briefly—the report of one reconnaissance spy described later—the feathers, animal skins, beaded tobako pouches, even ear rings or whatnot, the Nazis suspiciously leaving everything where it lay as if it might be tainted with some biologikal agent, conceptual disease or plain bad luck. (Which was of course true.) But the main problem was somewhere inside the traktor faktory Komrade Zenzontli and his squad were all that survived of the Aztek shock troops: perhaps they’d gone underground, tunneling under the enemy forces so as to surprise them from the rear, becuz we had been unable to find them anywhere on our own lines: they’d vanished into a large crater which subsequently filled with rubble, erasing all evidence of their passage. My plan was simple. I knew I had to think like an Aztek, using every shred of my years of study at Moscow University, where I learned Nahuatl from a French poet who was mainly interested in eating strange cacti, together we studied the ultrakomplex calendrikal system of ideology, pictographic thot processes, poetiks of politix, war and blood, socialism of sacrifice, death & pain. I had told my superiors when they chose me for this job that I’d only had a little over a year of study under my belt, I did not understand hardly anything about actual Aztek kulture, I only had the most basic konversational ability in the language, but the bearded anarchist kapitans congratulated me, saying that I was therefore the biggest expert on Aztex in Russia, the only man fit for the job. It was a historikal moment. They shook my hands all around, congratulating me on my promotion from Professor Bookworm to Kapitan on the Frontlines. I thanked them for their confidence in me, hoping that it would be borne out in time. Later, a bullet-headed Stalin-mustachioed short stocky man named Molotov who’d worked his way up thru the ranks as bank robber, bomb thrower, revolutionist, outside agitator, journeyman printer, dancing fool, union organizer, party komissar, jailbird ex-con, foot soldier of the Revolution (not in that order), (& who would later become confused as first Minister of Education under the historik first anarko-syndicalist government of the Decentralized Soviet Socialist Republix) pulled me aside, and partially hidden behind a column, jabbing his finger into my heart sternly the entire time, grumbled (sometimes jabbing his stubby pointer into my sternum grumpily), “Watch yourself four-eyed Jew boy! We have agents everywhere but we may not be able to protect you! You know as well as I do that anarchists couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag, I’m here to tell you papa’s got a brand new bag, and you’re it! Any number of Oppositionist cliques or Communist hardliners want this liaison to fail and fail spectacularly! They are convinced that the Azteks are secretly the enemies of world socialism, world proletarian brotherhood, our mother’s milk, multikulti-internationalism so they are fomenting the slander that the Azteks are practitioners of a bizarre bloodthirsty metaphysikal socialism which subverts not merely the state or the current kapitalist regimes oppressing mankind, but also subverts material reality itself thru Spiritual Violence. They will attempt to use your every personal failure, every problem our Aztek Allies have kollaborating with us to betray the Revolution, to aid the brutal Nazi aggressors in their war of annexation and genocide, and make us, the true anarcho-syndicalist political model seem more like fuck-ups than we actually are! We can’t let that happen, needless to say. So you just watch your ass. I will assign several of my best secret agents (not like the fuck-ups from Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent or Dostoyevski’s The Possessed I assure you!) to back you up, but Stalingrad will of course be another story altogether and there they may not be able to save you. Ultimate responsibility for this operation and your own life is up to you. Don’t screw it up becuz the reputation of our Revolution is already tarnished at an all-time low. The Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Cubans, the Nicaraguans, even the Grenadans are all saying that we are the Mickey Mouses of the world revolution! Those mean bastards! We must cut thru the Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck smokescreen to cut a more flamboyant figure like Buenaventura Durruti grasping his carbine, riding the running boards of an expropriated Stutz Bearcat careening wildly thru the avenidas of Barcelona with small arms fire chattering in the background! If we don’t expropriate the true aura of romantik violence, we won’t get anywhere marketing our line of black corduroys, T-shirt & artistik berets in coffeeshops, student reading clubs, lonely alienated jerk-offs walking around with one remaining hand left in the cities of the world, otherwise we will be stuck with a line of unsuccessful bookstores full of badly designed paperbacks crammed with ranting, raving and complaining! The destiny of world anarcho-syndicalism rests on your shoulders, four-eyed Jew boy. You must remember that bourgeois subjectivity and Marlboro individualism have no part in our foreign ideology, so don’t smoke, bad for the lungs, don’t drink too much coffee, stains the teeth and don’t stay up late watching TV, ruins the brain. Take this now as a personal token of affection from me to you. It’s a signed copy of one of Komrade Bakunin’s greatest books, Chale Kontigo, Kabron! This is the Spanish translation from the Spanish Civil War where I lost my right eye at Teruel, my right arm at Barcelona, my pinkie finger in Madrid, my virginity at Percodan, the use of my left leg along the Rio Jalama, my two front teeth at Christmas, my sense of humor on a left turn at sixty miles an hour, my right ear I don’t remember where, my lisp, my youth, the complete works of Robert Frost and any number of similar items all lost. So much has been lost along the way to World Revolution! We have all made tremendous sacrifices for our brothers, my brother. I don’t regret it. It was worth it in the global scheme of things where we are small as a grain of sand under a microscope as big as the moon. Now you understand where we stand?” “I believe so, komrade. Everything’s crystal clear to me now,” I acceded to the tremulous sturdy short man whose concealed outrage was ticking like a time bomb in my face. Men like him were the true anarcho-syndicalists that’s what I thot. I was proud to shake his one hand. He looked at me out of his one eye, brushed my hand aside, gripped me about the middle in a fierce bear hug that made my eyes water. I exhaled humidly onto his bald spot as he squeezed the air out of me completely with his one mighty arm. “Komrade, komrade,” he gasped, all choked up. “I wish you every success. The bastards don’t treat us like we deserve!” That was how this whole big adventure began for me. I never suspected that when I ended up in Stalingrad in the dead of winter of 1942 I’d meet the Aztek war leader, Zenzontli, Keeper of the House of Darkness, for the first time on a frozen air strip outside the winter-blighted village of Krapsnoskoye, where the horizontal wind knifed thru our greatcoats as we marched to the Aztek men standing there in their feathery finery, capes, chanclas, war clubs, magnificent and trembling, their eyes tearing in the freezing breeze, their tears and snot freezing on their faces as they attempted to strike a stoic, impervious pose, succeeding in part. Except for the grimaces of pain, the tearing or muscular tremors which were the first signs of hypothermia, etc. Little did I suspect that when I shook hands with the man, Keeper of the House of Darkness, that our handshake reached across oceans and kontinents, kultural differences, centuries of mistrust, misunderstanding, blatant error, histories of improbability and untold shaky decision-making on all sides. He gripped my hand in his, shook it casually and nodded in his absent-minded way. He had a strong grip, but my Aztek counter-part, the Keeper of the House of Darkness was paying hardly any attention to the howling wind, the violent shivering erupting among his glowering troops, the sputtering last gasps of the dying transport engines. Instead, he was thinking about something else; I suspected he was worried about himself. That’s when I knew we were like brothers.
Where was my Aztek brother?
Probably their souls were lost forever inside some slaughterhouse for all I knew.
The lost sorry sons of bitches.
That’s what happens with brothers, twins, supposed doubles, the replicant mirror image of your self, spirit and soul. When you first find out that you are exactly the same, that everyone is human, we are all alike, your fellow man is a brother in the truest sense of the word, all men are created equal and endowed by the Kreator (called by the Aztex, “Ometayotl”) with certain inalienable rights such as a driver’s license, checkbook, tooth brush, taxes, cops, armies, insurance forms, parking tickets, jails, parliamentary system of representation with lawyers up the kazoo. It’s all kool. But then your double, your brother, disappears you see and then it throws your whole life into question. The mirror image of the self vanishes. Cuz maybe it wasn’t your Other, your brother, your double. Maybe it was somehow, all the time, your self, your real self and maybe you never knew. Now that he’s gone and disappeared. So, what about that one, eh? How you like them Chinese greens in oyster sauce? Maybe you haven’t just lost some physical twin, spiritual mirror-image of yourself, maybe it goes way beyond that—maybe what you’ve lost is your own best self, your own inner being, your own truest identity out of a universe of possibilities, good or bad. Oh well that’s the way it goes, I know; still and all, when I thot it over, it became apparent that I had to go make some effort to go look for the guy. Cuz partly that was my job, plus I’d look really stupid, if they had assigned me as liaison to these superb brown Aztek warriors, who had mostly been blasted to bits but in some cases had achieved stunning successes on the battlefield, then during the course of walking from one point to another, Point A to Point B in Stalingrad, they’d just stepped into a hole in the ground, ajuah! like a puff of smoke, vanished! I couldn’t face my superiors without a real good faith effort on my part to recover my komrades. I couldn’t stand before my one-eyed, one-armed, gimp-legged, balding, bomb-throwing anarchist superior, Kapitan Molotov, and admit that I had lost my own mirror image of self, my brother, my Other, my double, the short-tempered fool! What did he have to get himself fucking lost for? I could hear Kapitan Molotov ranting and raving like a true anarcho-syndicalist, “You don’t have the slightest idea where they are? Jeezus Fucking Antichrist! March them straight to the center of Stalingrad thru smoke, bad news, shelling, high explosives, mines, Panzer attacks, machinegun nests, nitpicking, Nazi shock troops, balderdash, third-rate Chinese food, obscurantism, falsified documents, dust, smoke, freezing temperatures, grainy black & white photography, the stench of German cooking wafting over the ruins, the horrors of war, the horrors of German cooking, the atrocities of that type of personal hygiene, Nazi ideology, racial supremacy, sauerkraut with fennel seeds, on top of all that you misplace the special Aztek forces we are depending upon to hold the city center and turn the tide of war against world takeover by German fascism, a brutal philosophy and a spiffy teknology and pompous music! Jumping Jingoistic Jellyfish! Look at you! Hell, the crazy Azteks could be anywhere, is that what you’re telling me? You can’t even be sure that these men—foreigners in a foreign land, I might remind you—aren’t halfway around the world right this minute, right this second, being utterly destroyed, dying bit by bit, dazed, destroyed, agonized and stupified by it all, wasting their lives, falling prey to absolute idiocy and meaninglessness in some God-forsaken hellishly pointless spot on the globe like Southern Kalifornia? Do I have to mention South Pasadena, Gardena, Harbor City, San Pedro, Encino, West Hollywood, Westwood, Lakewood, Tustin, Culver City, Torrance, San Gabriel, Rosemead, City of Industry, Redondo Beach, Commerce, Burbank, Glendale, Pacoima, Van Nuys, Tarzana, El Monte, City Terrace, Whittier, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Ojai, Banning? Are you telling me it’s as bad as that—they could be anywhere, trapped in bullshit, catatonik, asphyxiated in complete shell-shocked imbecility and you, their brother and komrade wouldn’t even have a clue! You know What Has To Be Done!” That’s what my kapitan—Mr Personality, inventor of the molotov kocktail, with all the charisma of motor oil—would invariably say to me. I knew what I had to do. I had to find those lost sorry sons of bitches.
The first step, as I saw it, was to think like an Aztek! What would an Aztek do, trapped underground, fighting his way to the surface of the Red Oktobyr Traktor Faktory in the strategik center of the city of Stalingrad in the below-average winter of 1942? I massaged my temples with my fingertips and put on Rayban sunglasses in order to view the situation from their worldview. I marched out across the broken ground, with the wind whipping my hair in my face and sniper’s bullets sometimes zinging past the tip of my nose, I sang the Red Army Marching Song in imitation of what I thot would be the Aztek preparation for going into battle, since I didn’t know ‘In-a-gadda-da-vida’ or ‘Black Magik Woman’ or other authentik Aztek Fight Songs. I brushed aside some frozen dirt, ice crystals, and sat on some steps that led up into a building that was no longer there. It was history, so with that invisible building looming in the smoke of history over my right shoulder, I furrowed my brow in thot, trying to think like an Aztek, like my brother. What is the House of Darkness, my brother, what is that all about? What’s up with that, I ask you in my mind. “According to my studies… the Aztek peoples came out of the northern deserts believing some absurd myth that they had been born out of cave, a stony womb, possibly covered inside with cactus needles, so that they were born in agony… Maybe they felt better after that… according to my Research… I have the latest studies in Aztekology… according to ex-seminary student, linguistic genius & party theoretician, Joseph Djugashvili… “the Azteks figured that when they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a prickly pear cactus, they could stop wandering around in the desert for hundreds of years & finally settle down, get a life, a real job, downpayment, credit kards, mortgages, debts…” Djugashvili’s best-seller, Let History Judge, goes on, “boy, were they surprised when they were out by Lake Texkoko one day & what do you know but an eagle (representing the power of the sun, Huitzilopochtli, macho attitudes, etc.) came down (implying sexuality, of course) on a rattlesnake (ancient fertility symbol among Mesoamerikan peoples, representing the unblinking stealth of females & their reptilian cunning) & ate it! What does that represent, eh? Well that’s obvious. Anyway the Azteks were real surprised like I say becuz that’s what their mythologisms had always said they would see at the exact spot where they should build Teknotitlan, their kapital. So they did. Or at least that’s what real estate brochures say. Their neighbors did not really like them becuz they were unkempt savages out of the northern desert from places like the one street town of Tecate, where all they have is a beer brewery that makes cerveza out of maguey strings, barbershop hair, toenails of stray dogs, desert dust & borracho babas. With this low income background it was impossible to make friends with the better situated—not to mention rich—folks like the Otomi, Chichimeks, Kulwah, the Tepanaks & everybody else around there who was kooler than they were. Cuz everybody else had Everything—I’m talking chinampas, canals, pyramidz, boulevards, tattoos, placas, secret handshakes, Tres Flores hair oil, car parts, Tres Reyes records, extra engines up on blocks in the garage, I mean everything & the Azteks were seen as pollos & losers, fucked up with nothing. Even when other people tried to make friends with them, send them their sisters or daughters for marriage the Azteks would get too excited & skin the women alive, cannibalize their flesh, parade their flayed skins around the neighborhood. The Azteks were forever doing stuff like that why we don’t know but we have some theories. Anyway. Understandably the neighbors (Tepenaks, Tlaxklallans, Otomis, etc.) would get kind of upset you’d think the Azteks could figure that one out. Anyway there was umpteen years & generations of wars. They had some great wars, some smaller wars, some civil wars, some civil strife, food famines, riots, popular & unpopular wars, some wars accompanied by famines, wars over power, wars over territory, over ideology, some wars over who was allowed to eat the cannibalized flesh or wear the victim’s skin, some wars over who gets to wear red or blue, Krips or Bloods, la Eme or the Aryan Brotherhood, Pelican Bay or San Quentin, Corcoran or whatever, some wars were exciting some were boring some they kept score some they didn’t. Okay. You get the idea. They were always trying to start wars. The Azteks were finally rejected by their neighbors who didn’t appreciate all the wars, cannibalism, flaying, tearing out of hearts to offer as living sacrifices to the gods, mutilation of your own genitalia with stingray spines to commemorate important events, ritual torture & murder on a monthly basis to make sure overly complikated calendrikal systems of existential terror, taxation, economiks & macho dude attitude all worked out efficiently. Which it seems to. For as we see even if finally the Azteks happened to be repulsed & ejected, exiled way out into the middle of Lake Texkoko, where they had only the fish & the kormorants to be their friends they seemed to do all right.” [In a footnote, Djugashvili interpolates, “Hey it’s not like their neighbors didn’t do all this stuff either on a smaller scale cuz they did come on it’s not like the Azteks invented all of this stuff on their own. They claimed they got it from the Toltex but several Russian tourists or poets who have managed to escape from the region with their skin still partly intact have mentioned that even tho the whole area is packed full of different tribes of various nationalities with all kinds of different languages like Zapotek, Mixtek, Triki, Olmek, Totonak, Chichimek, Kalo, Huichol, nobody has sole franchise on human sacrifice, cannibalism & ritual torture they all share the same marketplace of ideas they all build pyramidz oriented to the heavens where in a timely fashion they chop open the victims & offer beating hearts to sun, moon, star godz—whatever they are—I mean, we Europians call them godz but obviously these concepts operate for Mesoamerikans on numerous psycho-social, ideo-physical, martyrological levels & nexuses of the kosmological, kommercial & physical worlds. Or anyway they all used to do that stuff but these are the modern days nowadays we presume the gringos no longer kill all the Indians, rape the women, enslave all people they consider ‘niggers,’ hiding behind flag & cross at every chance they get, we presume Chinese people are not spreading like yellow hordes across the globe willing to work like slaves for a few grains of rice, we assume that the German people remain the revolutionary people of Rosa Luxembird & Karl Liebkneck, Karl Marx & Friederick Pfufferpfiffel (we assume that the German people are not totally & completely in the thrall of the Nazi nightmare but we could be wrong), we assume that people everywhere have overcome their own kultural stereotypes, religious hang-ups & are doing better things with their lives, people can think for themselves but we could be wrong. Hard information is hard to come by.”] In my other favorite book of his, Report on the National Question: How to Get Ahead & Influence People, Joseph Djugashvili writes, “You have to admire anyway how the Azteks invented Socialism in One City in the middle of Lake Texkoko, by inventing the chinampa (‘floating garden’) system of agrikulture, constructing at once an architekture of the whole ekology which provided them with foodstuffs, fish, fowl & feathered clothing & an ekologikal system of transport thru inter-island canals, channels, walkways, roads and MTA as well as a spiritual transport & architekture that united them with their world, orienting them in their universe in such a way as to allow them to assume leadership amongst the multitudinous nationalities, tribes, organizations, clubs & gangs that were milling about in the kulturally rich soupy milieu there in the heart of Mesoamerika on Lake Texkoko. Sure they had some troubling one might even say disturbing bouts with bloodthirstiness, crazy violence & ritual slaughter of human beings en masse, but that’s all a thing of the past! Lucky for us & to whom it may concern! As a Georgian and a Russian, I—Joseph Djugashvili—am pretty glad that we Russians don’t have to worry about getting caught up in all kinds of internecine violence, mass slaughter of human beings, unconscionable violation of basic civil niceties, cuz, I can tell you that as a true anarchist I just wouldn’t stand for such a thing for one second!” Djugashvili, one of the world’s more stirring writers you can believe it. What an archeologist & thinker, practically a man of steel. A man after my own heart. Or vice versa. Anyway with Djugashvilian elucidation of the Aztek soul, I felt—again, rubbing my temples with my benumbed fingertips whilst the sniper bullets knocked down a runner who had ventured out across the open ground to try to bring me a message, or bring me in from the cold, stop this apparently foolhardy episode of exposing myself to certain death by simply stopping to think out here on the frozen ruins of some soap faktory or brick works (only to become statistical, fallen down clutching at his back, crumpling onto his face, the poor bastard, whoever it was, had been)—suddenly lightened of a burden: a thot came to me! I had it! I leapt to my feet! Based upon my examination of Aztek history, symbology of macaw feathers, jaguar paw prints, monkey chatter, my recent partnership with these strange allies, I felt I could guess what they were looking for. They were looking for LOVE!
Okay maybe that wasn’t exactly it. But I felt I was getting closer. House of Darkness… House of Darkness… What could that be…? I stood up, my knees creaking in the cold like an old man, my boots felt both too large or too tight, cold in any case, the chill was creeping into my bones, my nose felt frostbitten and my lips numb. Some German motherfucker was still shooting at me. He was very zealous about his job the son of an in-bred Rottweiler bitch. Every few minutes (he must’ve been mighty far away to keep missing like that with his high magnification Zeiss sniper-scope) some bullet would zip by two inches in front of my right eyelid, or bury itself into the dirt at my feet, or pop into the concrete beside me, sending shards or slivers of cement into my skin without visibly tearing the material of my greatcoat. I noticed the fallen runner had rolled over, had raised a hand, made one last gesture as if pointing toward the sky. It occurred to me momentarily that the man might still be alive. So I sauntered right on down there and knelt by his side. Now the sniper was working overtime, cuz apparently we were well within his sights. The first bullet to strike me notched my ear, it felt just like someone had snapped my ear in anger as a child or had bitten deeply the ear during an act of melodramatic Mike Tyson lovemaking. It stung, and immediately warm blood was trickling down my chilly neck. The fallen soldier was a nurse I had seen on the front lines before. Apparently she couldn’t move, perhaps the bullet had struck her spine. She was staring up at me with bright green eyes. What was her name? Olga? Inga? Anekka? Yolie? Leti? Nena? Another German bullet thumped into her body at the midsection; her expression did not change, but her eyes widened. She opened her mouth, as if struggling to speak. The next bullet ricocheted off my forehead, leaving my eyebrow hanging in my eye, blood dripping down my cheek. I decided not to wait for her to speak. I reached underneath the fallen komrade, grasping her belt as I stood, tossing her over my shoulder. The next bullet sliced thru my armpit, giving me nasty lacerations that hurt a lot both at the time and still hurt even in memory even when I recalled it years later, when I found myself still alive. The other thing I found out later was probably it was that bullet that slammed thru her groin area, chopping her femoral artery to bits, while I carried her to safety, heroically (I thot, in passing, while attempting to hurry my overcoated ass back to our lines), she completely bled out into her boot down my pants, perishing from loss of blood in a minute or two. Her head and arms bounced on my back as if patting me on the back for my efforts as I high-tailed it back to HQ in the ravine only to find the doctor said he couldn’t do a thing for her cuz she was dead already. What was she doing out looking for me? I asked around. ‘Cuz everybody thot you were lost, missing with your Aztek battalion,’ the exhausted surgeon said. ‘Anushka had a hunch she could save you.’ It didn’t take me long to get out of there. I marched across several ruined blocks. I clambered over some fallen walls. I jumped some tumbled stairs. I skirted a mess of blasted bricks. I single-handedly killed some German teenagers, I shot them lots of times while they crouched behind a wall smoking cigarettes, some of them looked like Turks as they clutched themselves falling to the ground I shot two of them in the back of the head. They might have been veterans of Paris; they might have been fresh off the farm. I killed them all. I knifed ‘em, I shot ’em, I blasted their hole to bits with a satchel charge. I tossed grenades at a bunch of them. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, we were crushing the life out of them, this way or that, welcome to Russia, hear what I am saying? 8, 9, ten, twelve, dozens of ’em, hundreds, we wiped ’em out. I fucked ’em up, I cut them out, I took their number, I did it without thinking, I loved every minute of it, I was good at it like nobody’s business, I killed some men in their twenties, I killed some Nazis in their thirties, I killed some former brown shirts in their forties, I killed Butchers of the Balkans, I killed Rapists of the Ukraine, I killed Lackeys of the Death Kamps, it wuz about time, I killed Special EisensatzgruppenExtermination Squads, I stabbed them to the motherfucking heart, I kicked in the teeth of Death’s Head Insignias, I socked the Nazi kapo in the jaw then shot him in the eye, with a big gun, with a howitzer, with a Kalashnikov, with a Smith & Wesson 44. I become Death, slayer of worlds. Robert Oppenheimer said that. Fuck Robert Oppenheimer! I said that. I killed the sick ones, the proud ones, the strong ones, the pussies, I killed the tall ones the short ones I killed the faggots the artists I killed the geniuses the idiots I killed the rich man’s beloved child the poor woman’s only son. I killed ’em where they stood I shot them when they ran. I killed the poets the car mechaniks dog catchers the waiters the corporals the lieutenants the captains the sergeants then I killed somebody who just happened to get in the way, who wuz it? A cook, an orderly, a child, a nobody, somebody who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I never found out who that was I never looked back. The beer bellies… the sensitive types… the ones who just did what they’re told… the fuckups… the students… the ones who surrendered… the ones who didn’t… I didn’t know that I was on my way to the House of Darkness.
I could have guessed when I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. A flicker of movement that when you turn your head to look is gone. A shadow. A shift. Whatever it was. You could have sworn for a moment there something was examining you dispassionately as a jaguar but when you turn to look you survey only the usual ruins, piles of brick and mortar, blasted stones, the avenueless avenues, treeless trees, directionless streets. Trolley tracks without trolleys. The depopulated center of the city. People get a little money, what do they do? Move to the suburbs. Chips of shattered cement scraped under my boots. I was walking the streets past the uninhabitable habitations, collapsed and burnt out quarters, apartments whose walls enclosed drifting smoke, smoldering fires, burning bodies, wood beams, planks and lath smashed to kindling under crushed masonry and plaster, still burning, greasy black tendrils and white flumes dissipating into puffs in the cold air, nothing to it, perhaps, but possibly the tell-tale sign of enemy cook fires. Drifting smoke merged with the lowering cold gray sky. Frayed wires hanging from a leaning pole. Another day in Stalingrad. Except for the stench of burning ruins, mostly acrid rubber, paint or sometimes other things, a dead horse on the corner, the charred particulate smell stronger or weaker in a fluctuating breeze. Diffused sunshine oblique through the thickening or thinning mass of cloud cover. Sometimes it might give you the impression that the sun was about to appear, shadows would begin to deepen your field of vision around nearby objects, pull their edges into sharper relief (you might think of moving closer to rubble, a burnt out truck settled on its axles, that could provide more cover) then just as quickly, that impending glare would fade, the gray cast would return to everything, the uniformity of indirect light.
It might occur to you that you smelled like this dead city.
Varieties of pungency in the smoke.
Thunder of distant explosions. How many people would die here? Millions?
House. Razed to the foundations. Someone had been living in the basement, a woman and her two children. Their hideaway had been found. German soldiers—we assume—scouted it out as an enemy dugout. The woman and her little kids had not gotten away. The two children lie face up on the sidewalk. The mother with the kerchief on her head sprawled in the foundation of the house. The day is cold. The bodies don’t smell from here. I took out my notebook from my shirt pocket, my pencil stub. Wrote: thinking like an Aztek. The plan. Tapped my pencil against my teeth… Somewhere in the neighborhood I could hear the engine rumble of heavy armor. Tanks in the vicinity. No need to mention they’d be accompanied by infantry patrols. I stepped into the street and picked up the broken chair. I set it next to the nearest one of the two dead babies. A little girl, fat round cheeks, half open eyes. Nearby, the little brother. I searched the ground until I found among the splinters a sharp sliver of wood longer than my forefinger for use as a lancet. Also, my razor sharp Swiss Army knife which I carried with me everywhere or else felt naked. I found a cracked white porcelain bowl to set underneath the broken chair. Suddenly the staccato clatter of tank tread and huge diesel engine sharpened distinctly as three gray figures strolled into the intersection a couple blocks down. The point man raised his arm, others fanned out, running down the sidewalk in my direction. Others would accompany them behind the walls, thru the emptied ruins. I had a precious few minutes to enact the Aztek invention if I could remember exactly what I’d learned in school:
Beginning in the Late Preclassic Period, lancets made of stingray spines, obsidian and flint are regularly found in burials and caches. Stingray spines, for example, are often found in the pelvic regions of the dead and were perhaps originally contained in bags hung from belts. It is clear that bloodletting was basic to the institution of rulership, to the mythology of world order, and to public rituals of all sorts. Through bloodletting the Maya [sic] sought a vision they believed to be manifestation of an ancestor or a god. Thus the Maya [sic] expressed piety by letting blood from all parts of the body… While the importance of blood sacrifice in Mesoameri[k]an societies has long been recognized, the practice was considered to be Mexi[k]an rather than fundamentally Maya [sic]… For kings, every stage in life, every event of political or religious life, every significant period ending required sanctification [thru] bloodletting. When buildings were dedicated, crops planted, children born couples married or the dead buried, blood was given to express piety [&] call the gods into attendance… The creation of the Popul Vuh provides a context for the rite of bloodletting. At the beginning of all things, when the creator gods finished their work, they wanted to be recognized by their living creations. The birds [&] beasts of the fields answered them with only a meaningless cacophony of sound, [&] for that they were destined to be the food of man [&] of one another. The gods tried several times to create creatures who would know them, but nothing worked. Finally, using maize for flesh [&] water for blood, they created human beings who could recognize them [&] understand their relationship to the creator gods. The gods’ prolonged efforts are central to the understanding of bloodletting: they wanted creatures to “name (their) names, to praise them” [&] to be their providers [&] nurturers… Elegantly dressed, Shield Jaguar wears the shrunken head of a past victim tied to the top of his head, signaling his sacrificial role. His principal wife, Lady Xo[k], kneels before him in a huipil of finely woven, complex design. Her headdress, with its tassels, bar, trapeze [&] Tlalo[k] signs, signals she is engaged in a very special bloodletting rite that will eventually include captive sacrifice. She pulls a thorn-lined rope [thru] the wound in her perforated tongue, letting the rope fall into a woven basket full of blood-spotted paper strips. Lady Xo[k]’s lips [&] cheeks are covered with the dotted scrolls that signify the blood streaming from her wounded mouth… the second in the series, shows the consequence [&] purpose of the bloodletting rite… The same woman, still kneeling, gazes upward at an apparition, a Tlalo[k] warrior, emerging from the gaping mouth of a Vision Serpent. In her left hand she holds a bloodletting bowl with the bloody paper, a stingray spine [&] an obsidian lancet; in the right hand, a skull [&] serpent symbol. The Vision Serpent rises from a separate bowl placed on the ground in front of her… The serpent’s body surges upward [thru] a blood scroll, declaring that the vision materializes from blood itself. The Tlalo[k] god [&] warrior brought forth refer to a special sacrificial complex that the Maya [sic] with the god of the evening star [&] with war… Today, scientists acknowledge that endorphins—chemi[k]ally related to the opiates [&] produced by the brain in response to massive blood loss—can induce hallucinogeni[k] experiences… The Vision Serpent may have been more than a symboli[k] manifestation of hallucination. Information from Room 3 at Bonampak as well as from other pictorial records makes it possible to reconstruct some parts of rituals that took place in the great open plazas of Maya cities. Against a backdrop of terraced archite[k]ture, elaborately constumed dancers, musicians, warriors [&] nobles entered the courts in long processions. [Some of this shit was boring as you can imagine.] Dancers whirled across the plaza floors [&] terrace platforms to music made on rattles, whistles, wooden trumpets [&] drums of all sizes. Even of imaginary sizes. A crowd of participants wearing bloodletting paper or cloth tied in triple knots sat on platforms [&] terraces around the plaza. [The pinche Nazis are coming. Scurrying like shadows. They secure the perimeters of the avenue as the Mark IV tank clatters into the center of the intersection; the gun turret revolves, black diesel fumes spurting out in a cloud at the rear of the panzer, with a grinding of gears the right track pulls the tank rightward. Diesel fumes spurting in its wake. It lurches. It approaches.] According to Bishop Landa, these people would have prepared themselves with days of fasting, abstinence [&] ritual steam baths. Well into the ceremony, the ruler [&] his wife would emerge from within a building high above the court, in full publi[k] view, he would lacerate his penis, she her tongue. Ay, que rika! Ropes drawn [thru] their wounds would carry the flowing blood to paper strips. The saturated paper—perhaps along with other offerings… were placed in large plates, then carried to braziers [&] burned, creating columns of black smoke. The participants, already dazed [thru] deprivation, publi[k] hysteria [&] massive blood loss, were [k]ulturally conditioned to expect a hallucinatory experience. The rising clouds of swirling smoke provided the perfect field in which to see the Vision Serpent; gazing into the smoke, the celebrants may have actually seen it… (pages 175- 178, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, by Linda Schele & Mary Ellen Miller) Apprehensive as much from the general chill in the air as from the approaching enemy, I unbuckled my belt & pulled down my trousers. I sat on the rickety chair & lay my penis on the wooden frame. I had to recall this exactly so that I got it right the first time. I wasn’t going to get a second chance. In his seventeeth-century account of the ceremony, Fray Delgado, a Spanish priest, vividly described the method of drawing blood from the penis, as practiced among the Manche Chole Maya [sic]:
In Vicente Pach’s ranch I saw the sacrifice. They took a chisel [&] a wooden mallet, placed the one who had to sacrifice himself up on a smooth stone slab, took out his penis, [&] cut it in three parts two finger breadths up, the largest in the center, saying at the time incantations [&] words I did not understand. The one who was undergoing the operation did not seem to suffer… (ibid. page 180)
Here goes nothing. I lifted the skin off the top of my member, which was feeling distinctly chilly & neglected where it lay, shriveling up like a slug in the icy breeze; I summarily rammed the long splinter perpendicular thru it. Yoweeee! Did that sting! My breath shuddered going out. I started trembling. Could have been worse! Now for the hard part. I unfolded the large blade on my Swiss Army knife; two German troops stopped on the sidewalk cradling their submachine guns stopped to watch. One grinned, said something to the other, who nudged his gun barrel in my direction. Blood was dripping into the bowl below my seat. I shifted the knife in hand so that the blade pointed inward. Raised it up and brought it swiftly down.
I looked up, scanning for the Vision Serpent.
Then everything blew up. (Ka-Boom!)
That’s the end of the story right there. (Kaboombah!)
That’s it. All over.
Se acabo. The deal is done, compa.
What happened? Mother Russia, wrapped in a shawl of freezing fog, under a vast tent of stars. Treeline of taiga spreading in the stars. Permafrost rising in my expansive soul, tundra layered in forgotten childhoods. Mother Russia’s mountains, rivers and cities lost out on the endless steppe. The Lena, Kazakhstan, Outer Mongolia. Night descends. The same night sleeping thru ten thousand years. Famine, wars, progroms, the gulag—Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan have nothing on us. We’ve industrialized the business. Take a number, get in line. Your turn will come. Your brother, your prodigal double, for lack of whom your soul shall forever remain solitary, dreamless and without reflection, who never knew you existed and you never knew the same, remains locked down in solitary an alternate universe, the endless gulag, Angola State Prison, Corcoran Facility for Men, Pelican Bay maximum security. The Spanish Republic went down to defeat long ago. La Pasionaria gave her speech as the men passed down the alameda “into history” long time coming long time gone. Her speech on Radio Madrid broadcast into the void. The International Brigades scattered on four winds. Those men and women will die—or fell in combat years ago—in distant corners of the world, unjoined, in disconnected little battles in farflung fucking corners of the piss-stained dog eared world, unknown to each other. Out of touch. That’s what happened to me. The Mark IV tank fired, fired again. The German soldiers aimed their submachine guns at me and pulled the triggers, on the run. Smoke rose up, covered over the scene. The air filled with dust and ash. You know how it gets sometimes, some moments you feel like you are inside one of those souvenir bubbles the kid in is shaking in the gift shop, fascinated by the plastic snow chips swirling around and around. What can you do but wait for your vision to clear—if it doesn’t clear, you just go on from there. The tank had fired, a concussion shook my entire being. The soldiers had fired directly at me, was I still in one piece? Doubtful, it seemed doubtful. Maybe if life isn’t going too good before we die, the line between life and death isn’t gonna be all that definite. Was I alive or dead, that was the question. Would we be able to tell? I didn’t expect any official notification. Soil and masonry fountained out of the ruined earth in successive blasts. Clods, pieces of brick, debris rained down. Smoke swirled about us, ash from burning buildings drifted out of the sky like snowflakes. I heard the chatter of submachine guns, the Germans were quite near, I felt sure that I must be hit repeatedly, must feel their bullets passing thru my body, stitching into my attitude, but I felt nothing. My limited attention was fading. The tank revved, spurting black diesel fumes into the chill misty air, clattered to a halt, the folding treads clanking on the pavement directly ahead of me. The muzzle of the gun pointing above, off to the right. If it fired my ear drums would shatter, I’d never hear again. As if descending out of the smoke, a figure appeared, crouching on top of the turret. First he was just a silhouette with frondlike fins waving on his back like some prehistoric lizard, but then I could perceive more detail. An Aztek warrior painted with jaguar spots, ketzal-plumed headdress fanning out behind his head like a flaming green mane. He was trying to figure out how to open the hatch. A German soldier ran up, raised his submachinegun with both hands and paused. His receiver must’ve jammed. He cursed, throwing the submachinegun to the street, he jerked his automatik pistol out of a leather holster on his hip. As he raised the pistol, feathers sprouted in the soldier’s armpit. Arrows flitted thru the murky air. He let out a startled half-cry, stiffened as he fell, twisting. Helmet and pistol, canteen, hand grenades and paraphernalia from his web belt clattered on the street. The turret of the tank turned on its base with the gnashing of gears. Smoke descended like a curtain, the Aztek on the tank was still struggling with the top hatch, crackling of small arms erupted around us, shouts and cries of men in pain penetrated the general din. A German infantryman with an arrow protruding from his thigh limped frantically around the tank, rifle at the ready. Then he was hit, he jumped, startled, looked down at the arrowhead extending out of his front pocket below his belt, screeching as he collapsed. Feathers bobbed behind his coat as if he’d been playing the party game, Pin the Tail on the Nazi. He was attempting to crawl away, whimpering, spewing yelps of agony when the arrows scraped the pavement, but an Aztek warrior ran up to him, clubbed him so hard his helmet made a potlike clang and rolled away, dented. The German soldier slumped, face-down on the street. The Aztek slung his club on his own belt, reached down; pulled the German over his shoulder, and trotted off down the street. Someone laughed—shouted out a grito; the figure on the tank disappeared inside. Behind the tank several German soldiers shuffled, limping thru masonry scattered in the street. One of them swung his leg and booted an odd shaped ball not far from the silent tank. The shaggy ball rolled as if waterlogged, closer—it did not bounce—a man’s head. An Aztek warrior laughed and stepped up; he sidestepped—kicking not with the toes like the Germans in their heavy boots, but with the regulation side of the foot, giving it the proper football strike—he booted the head back at the Germans, who now showed no interest. Suddenly the Germans displayed no joy in kicking a decapitated trophy thru the street. They allowed it to roll beyond them. They were being escorted thru the smoke by men whom I recognized from Zenzontli’s squad. The missing Jaguar Unit had returned. The Azteks sauntered casually thru the avenue in Stalingrad as if the maelstrom was all in a day’s work. Two Germans emerged from atop the tank, followed by the long, lean jaguar warrior in feathers, who dropped lithely to the ground. (I recognized him as the one they called Zahuani, Pirate.) A long knife dangled from his hand. As the tank crew stood, he shoved them among their other komrades already under escort. Smoke billowed in and covered them over. Coughing, bootsteps scraping pavement as they went away. A curtain of darkness descended upon me. So it was that I died and crossed over the twilit boundary of life to walk out onto the vast barren plain of Death. Know what I saw? Of course you do not. There on the borderlands of the vast black plain of Death, I saw a bunch of trash and litter and crap, right there on the border where the Land of the Dead abuts the Land of the Living. No frontage road, no real estate signs saying Buy Desertview Luxury Villas Financed by Lincoln Savings & Loans, no barbed wire fence that I could see. All that had come and gone decades ago. Maybe some partial fence no one took care of so it had fallen down. A somewhat vertical plywood billboard long since stripped of signage, color or painted lettering. And like I say, a noticeable amount of litter on the ground. You could see the ground was all scuffed up from people standing around. Like a bus stop on a corner next to some empty lot in South Central or downtown. Plastic bottles, discarded Pampers, cigarette butts, beer cans, bottles, bottles in paper sacks, broken bottles, plastic bags wrapped around tumbleweeds, sign poles, bits and pieces of paper, yellowed, graying newspaper fragments embedded or partially buried in the sandy clay. A woman’s worn shoe, what they call a ‘pump’ curling up under the weather. Etc. Other items blown up against a portion of chainlink fence: tattered emotional tonalities weathered into vague translucence like pieces of plastic, ideograms representing the totality of one person’s best intentions hanging on the fence line like scraps of hair, fragments of personality scattered almost invisibly across the ground as far as one cared to look, human tonalities glinting in the gravel like bits of broken glass. An outcropping of rock like a line of barren brown hills in the middle distance. As day dawned in Miktlan, the Land of the Dead, 3Turkey was grousing, grumpy from lack of coffee. “What the fuck, anyway,” he kicked at a stone embedded in the hard ground but his toe only skittered off, the stone firmly embedded in earth. We stood not far from a towering urban semaphore whose tricolor lights however were dark, distinctly off, nonfunctional, dead. The semaphore was attached midway up on an extremely long tubular pole which bent ungainly over the center of the roadway, where it extended to an empty light fixture. This empty socket dangled a fraying braid of unconnected wires. I had not noticed it previously, but the asphalt of the highway stretched straight down into the valley of the plain and into the distance. The asphalt ran out here before us, at an intersection of unpaved roads. On of those roads extended a brief distance, only, into the brush until it was either overgrown or occluded by cactus and brush. On the other side of the road were a couple small piles of asphalt, gravel and sand, clearly no more than leftovers, not enough to pave the center of the intersection let alone extend the roadway for any distance. There was not a truck, vehicle, bulldozer or piece of heavy equipment in sight except one rusted yellow earth mover so overgrown with drifting sand and tumbleweeds that it was almost indistinguishable from the a rise in the background. 3Turkey limped up to a METROPOLITAN TRANSIT AUTHORITY sign on a steel pole which implied a bus stop; 3Turkey squinted up at the sign futilely scanning its weathered blue triangle for some useable information. “Where the fuck is the bus?” 3Turkey cried at some point. He grasped the limber steel pole with both hands as if to strangle it; he shook it back & forth with a rattle. “Fuck!” he cried. “Fuck! I hate this!” As the Mexikan sun rose over the hills, long shadows extended across the ochre plain almost to the far horizon. The light exposed yellow desiccated bushes which appeared to be uniformly spaced on the black ground as far as the eye could see. Out of an area of shadow a great distance away appeared a pooling of deeper shadow which later might turn into a dry lake bed or an actual mirage. Soon, if you looked straight up into the sky a blinding light would hurt your eyes. The Land of the Dead was looking mighty empty this time of the morning. Clearly not enough people had yet died. I suspected that once the Battle of Stalingrad was done with, they would have more reason to extend this roadway and get the buses running out this far. The place would be flush with immigrants. Until then—or even if, I didn’t want to tell 3Turkey the bad news—scowling with confusion as he limped out into the middle of the empty roadway where yellow sand had drifted out across the plainly unused tarmac, he stood straddling the center line that ended abruptly a couple yards beyond him, legs apart, his hands open at his sides, twitching, his big dark face rumpled with an openly astonished expression of disbelief as he stared down the empty road into the distance—I didn’t have it in my heart to tell him—but I thot we were fucked. For the time being. Which in a place like this, could very well mean forever.
Sesshu Foster taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 35 years. His most recent books are World Ball Notebook(City Lights, 2008); and City of the Future, poetry (Kaya Press, 2018).His forthcoming novel, a collaboration with artist Arturo E. Romo, is ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines (City Lights, 2020), an "actual history of a fictional airship company": "Written and presented as an "actual history of a fictional company," this surrealist, experimental novel is a tour de force of politicized fantastic fiction, a work of hybrid art-making distilled into a truly original literary form. Developed over a ten-year period of collaborations, community interventions, and staged performances, ELADATL is a furiously hilarious send-up of academic histories, mainstream narratives, and any traditional notions of the time-space continuum."